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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Fiction of War
In March, the country reflected on the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War and then moved on. As a veteran of that war, I’d like to think I moved on as well.
I returned from Iraq in November 2007, left the Army in March 2009, and remained jobless for nearly a year after. I walked around with a chip on my shoulder and read little about Iraq other than the daily casualty reports. Tired of constantly being defined by the past, I tried to suppress the fact that I was a veteran in an attempt to move on.
Over time, I assimilated with the rest of the civilians. Occasionally, I happened upon the memories that I tucked away, but for the most part, I avoided the details. I didn’t want to confront the suggestion of contributing to a war the country entered based on a false premise, or participating in one we may have lost – or both. If I did, would it negate my service to country and four years of my life?
The more I tried to distance myself from the Iraq War, the more I came back to it. Through writing, I began tackling my thoughts about the war and my initial frustration with readjusting to civilian life. I didn’t want pity so much as understanding, but it felt too much like complaining. Initially, I avoided reading war novels, but in September of last year I attended a book reading in Austin for Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. I read the book in a week to see what a fellow veteran had to say about his experience and what he wanted those who had not been overseas to take away from it.
The book revolves around Private Bartle coming to terms with his actions in Iraq, slowly dancing around the powerful, disturbing event that caused his turmoil. Back home, he vents to himself: “… Everybody wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight, and you can’t explain it but it’s just, like, Fuck you, but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose, so you are in the end doubly fucked, so why not just find a spot and curl up and die and let’s make it as painless as possible because you are a coward and, really, cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man …”
Coming to terms with Iraq resonated with me, but I worried if non-veterans would understand the gray area in which war exists, or would they paint all veterans as disturbed, all participants as victims? In fact, Powers, answering a question from the audience during his book reading, said all war fiction, if written truthfully, is inherently anti-war. But is it?
Maybe the wars we live through, or with, affect the way we read or write about them. I was curious, so I set out to read more. Around the same time, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and David Abrams’ Fobbit, two other novels about Iraq, were published. Both authors appeared at a panel together at last year’s Texas Book Festival.
Fountain’s book mostly takes place in the states, following a group of soldiers sent on a PR tour for their heroic actions in Iraq. As I flipped through the pages, I was amazed how an author with no prior service could tap into soldiers’ unfiltered thoughts. Fountain isn’t afraid to address the sacred cows: support for the troops, and the troops themselves; the latter not necessarily in a disparaging manner, but truthful nonetheless. The book, peppered with caricatures of jingoism, is more political than Powers’ novel, but it didn’t come across as inherently anti-war. The most important thing Fountain does is force readers to face the growing disconnect between soldiers and civilians, especially in this time of an all-volunteer military that relies on a small percentage of the country’s populace.
In Billy Lynn, Fountain writes: “… War was coming and he was bound for the war, and some occult, irresistible father-son dynamic was at work to ensure that this was so. If the father loved the war, how could the son stay away? Not that love for the war would necessarily translate into love for the son.”
For most, war is only an abstraction, unless you’re directly involved, said Fountain. Simply reporting soldiers’ stories from his research, he managed to mold that abstraction and make it feel authentic. Although Powers mentions the same divide, it is internalized. Fountain, through the use of third-person, allows the readers to see it more often and in a wider range. As a non-veteran, was he afforded a distance of emotional objectivity that benefited his story – the power to step away and see things that we veterans may be too close to see clearly? In fact, Powers, in a late April group discussion, said he started writing what eventually became The Yellow Birds as a personal catharsis, but as he crossed the divide into fiction he simply created the events from imagination and kept the underlying attitude from his experiences. He would have “been too close,” he added, if he had mirrored his actual experiences.
Abrams, on the other hand, used his notes from his deployment as a public affairs officer and penned a novel that appears to more directly reflect his experience overseas. It’s a satirical depiction of an Army officer who polishes the grimy details of combat while confined inside the relative safety of a Forward Operating Base. Beneath the humorous bumbling lies occasional descriptions of violence that blow the reader back to the book’s more serious theme – one that also reflects on what it means to be a hero, a coward, a man. However, Abrams’ portrayal of the lavish confines of a large military base is what brought me back to Iraq. I was an enlisted infantryman assigned to the brigade commander’s personal security detachment. Surrounded by high-ranking officers, our team stayed in a large base with all the comforts of home: gyms, American fast-food restaurants and retail stores. I went outside the wire on a near daily basis, but each time I returned with a mix of guilt and shame to the comfy environs, where the only danger was the off chance that an insurgent mortar might actually hit something.
I have read nothing but war novels since reading these three books. Working my way back from Iraq, I recently finished my last Korean War-era book and am now on World War II. I have read some before, but most I have not. Vietnam, which yielded the biggest chunk of my collection, has proven the richest reading so far. Maybe it has to do with the fact that so much time has passed since that war, or maybe it’s because of the comparisons to Iraq.
O’Brien, also at the Texas Book Festival, said he was too cowardly not to go to Vietnam. In Going after Cacciato, he wrote: “Oh, he had read the newspapers and magazines. He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t uninformed. He just didn’t know if the war was right or wrong. And who did? Who really knew? So he went to the war for reasons beyond knowledge. … He went to the war because it was expected. Because not to go was to risk censure, and to bring embarrassment on his father and his town. Because, not knowing, he saw no reason to distrust those with more experience. Because he loved his country and, more than that, because he trusted it.”
It was revealing to read and hear O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran, express what I also read in Powers’ and Fountain’s novels; it is something that I’ve come to understand more after the fact. But these experiences are not simply for veterans, nor should they be. Although most of the novels on my list are written by veterans, some non-prior service authors have written the most haunting or realistic portrayals that I’ve come across so far.
Each novel that I read reveals more about the consequences of my decision to enlist. I don’t know yet if all war fiction is in direct opposition to what it depicts, but it’s comforting knowing that my feelings of cowardice, isolation and betrayal are not mine alone, nor are they soldiers’ alone. I’m not sure if I will I look back at my deployment with stalwart pride or regret, or if the two will mix and dilute each other. For now, I can only hope that war fiction will continue to diminish the disconnect for me and non-veterans alike. I estimate it will take at least six months to finish the rest of my collection, but if it ends up taking 15 months total, I find that appropriate; that was the length of my tour.
Ramiro G. Hinojosa lives and writes in Austin, Texas, where he works as a political research analyst. He served in Iraq from 2006-07 as a team leader with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (3rd Brigade Combat Team), 82nd Airborne Division.